My favorites of 2017

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Here are my favorite books for 2017. These are ones that I gave 5 stars to in Goodreads but don’t include the adult books I read (or, more often, listened to) as they are outside the purview of this blog. My shift towards YA and away from middle grade is virtually complete – I have read some middle grade this year but not very much and only one book makes it onto my list. While some of these YA novels read a little younger than others, they are all definitely intended for a teen, rather than tween, reader.

Realistic Fiction
Genuine Fraud by e. lockhart
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Little Monsters by Kara Thomas

Speculative Fiction
The Empty Grave (Lockwood & Co. book 5) by Jonathan Stroud
A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge
Scythe by Neal Shusterman
Still Life with Tornado by A. S. King
They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera
Thick as Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner

Nonfiction
Vincent and Theo by Deborah Heiligman

There is also one late addition that I have read but not yet posted a review for, but will do at the beginning of the year:
A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

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The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud

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The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud
Lockwood and Co., Book 5
Disney Hyperion, 2017

If you read many of my reviews, you’ll have noticed I can be a bit sniffy about series. This is generally because they open with a terrific flourish focusing on the personal story of some teen, but then get bogged down in subsequent novels when the author tries to open up the world he or she has created. But there are exceptions! Harry Potter is, of course, one and so is Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. And I believe Jonathan Stroud has created two exceptional series that get better as they go along: Bartimaeus and Lockwood and Co. So if you haven’t read them, stop looking at this right now and get to it. For the rest of us Stroud fans, you may continue on to my review of The Empty Grave.

In this outstanding 5th (and final) book in the consistently excellent Lockwood and Co series, our friends at the Lockwood psychic detective agency are digging deeper into the root of the Problem that has been plaguing Great Britain for more than 50 years.

There’s more than a hint of melancholy hanging over the charismatic Anthony Lockwood and our narrator, Lucy Carlyle, as they have now been to the Other Side, and for Lockwood, especially, it brings a devil may care desperation to his dealings with the denizens of the ghost world. While there is still much lighthearted banter, particularly between Lucy and the Skull, the overall feel is much more elegiac than previous books. And at least some of that comes from me knowing this will be the last book with my friends

Joining our regulars – Lockwood, Lucy, nerdy George Cubbins, and elegant Holly Munro – is Quill Kipps who has played a support role in previous books. Quill is older, though no more responsible than the others.

Unlike previous books, the book opens with a vignette that is directly related to the main plot arc – the gang are trying to dig up Marissa Fittes’ grave to see if there is really a body there. After this escapade, we move to an apparently unrelated case, that of the Belle Dame Sans Merci, which is more to build our growing concern about Lockwood’s state of mind than to forward the plot.

Stroud perfectly balances the scares with the warmth of the characters, and also manages to challenge the reader’s assumption (or, at least, this reader’s assumption) that everything is going to be alright. As Lockwood takes Lucy to see the empty grave between his parents, a space for him to join his family, George gets beaten up, and Quill gets a sword in the side, it’s never clear if everyone is going to come out alive. Even the skull wants his freedom and can Lucy refuse when she knows she could be dead very soon?

The series wraps up with a satisfyingly exciting climax and the end-tying warmth of the aftermath. To be honest, I was hoping this was going to be an ongoing series as it’s a high spot in my reading year, but Mr Stroud still looks pretty young so I’m hoping he can get another series going if he’s finished with Lockwood (which may be a British TV series). And I can always go back and re-read Bartimaeus.

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The Creeping Shadow by Jonathan Stroud

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creeping-shadowThe Creeping Shadow by Jonathan Stroud
Lockwood & Co. Book 4
Disney Hyperion, 2015

This middle grade series just keeps getting better. Lucy Carlyle is now out fighting ghosts on her own, away from the comfort and protection of Lockwood and Co. She’s doing alright, after all she has the Bartimaeus-style snarky skull to keep her company, and she’s making a living as a freelancer. But, and you’ll have noticed the name of the series, she’s soon back happily working with charismatic Anthony Lockwood, nerdy George Cubbins, and even last book’s newcomer and love rival, the elegant Holly Munro.

There is an overarching grand conspiracy going on, that seems to revolve around the two original agencies founded to solve the Problem, Fittes and Rotwell, and once again, Lockwood and Co. is all wrapped up in it. This time it starts when Lucy discovers that someone is stealing powerful Sources which should be destroyed, and leads to a very haunted village.

Stroud does a magnificent job of keeping this series fresh, building on the familiar characters and world, as well as introducing new elements. Coming into the familiar mix of humor, chills, and mystery is a more somber note, a trepidatious twang of foreboding: Lockwood’s dark side and live fast die young attitude comes more into focus, even as he gets closer to Lucy.

Each novel in this series can stand alone, with an episodic structure that builds to a dramatic climax. But the reader would be best to start at the beginning to get the full rich umami of the stew that the author keeps cooking up for us.

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The Hollow Boy by Jonathan Stroud

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hollow boyThe Hollow Boy by Jonathan Stroud
Lockwood & Co. Book 3
Disney Hyperion, 2015

In Lockwood & Co.’s strong third outing, Stroud continues to develop the characters and the world in ever more rich fashion. The Chelsea area of London is suffering an intense epidemic of supernatural hauntings, and all the top agencies are baffled about where the Source could be.

Meanwhile, the three psychic investigators at Lockwood & co – the charismatic Lockwood (I picture him as a youthful Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes), the nerdy and brilliant George, and the super Sensitive Lucy Carlyle, our narrator – are busy but with much lower profile cases. So busy, that Lockwood decides to bring in a new employee: “coffee-skinned” Holly Munro. Lucy immediately resents Holly’s elegant looks and efficient work-habits. And, even worse, her apparent appeal to Lockwood.

The first section in the book is a leisurely paced catch-up, and also serves well as an introduction to readers new to the series. Then the tempo, intensity and horror ratchet up as the agents work their way into the Chelsea hauntings, ending with a prolonged night of terror in an old department store. Ends are left open for another book.

Lucy is maturing into a young woman, in terms of both her skills and her emotions. She is a flawed and somewhat impetuous teen, and rather willful about using her ability to communicate with Visitors, particularly as this is more easily done without the usual protections.

Lucy’s deep attraction to Lockwood grows, and she learns more about his personal history. He continues to be the flamboyant figurehead of the agency and the book, and is starting to show some interesting weaknesses: he shows very little understanding of Lucy’s feelings, and closes off any discussion about that and about his past.

Holly is an excellent addition, not least for adding a darker skin tone, and also for the frisson of romantic tension she generates. George, after his bid for attention in the last book (The Whispering Skull, 2014), now appears to be happy to stay in his support role. The skull provides some welcome Bartimaeus-tinged light relief.

This is a middle grade series that shows no sign of flagging. Mr Stroud has created an extraordinarily detailed world peopled with fine three-dimensional characters, and guides them through a marvelously well-paced and intricate plot. Can’t wait for the next one.

The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud

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whispering skullThere are definitely two types of sequels – those that don’t capture the magic of the first book and those that build on that magic. The Whispering Skull, the sequel to The Screaming Staircase (2013), in the Lockwood & Co. middle grade fantasy series, is definitely in the second category. With the heavy lifting of world building and main character establishment already achieved, there is time and space for a more intricate plot and more nuanced character development.

Despite their previous success at the most haunted house in Britain, the smallest and coolest psychic detective agency in London is still struggling. When a case arises that involves an evilly powerful artifact, the three operatives – debonair and charismatic Lockwood, nerdy George and our narrator Lucy – use all their different Talents in a pitched competition against the slick operatives of the establishment Fittes agency. Meanwhile, Lucy is finding a connection with a rare Type Three Visitor – a skull in a jar that actually talks to her.

The satisfying plot includes some thoroughly creepy moments, while bubbling along with the snarky humor that Bartimaeus fans will recognize. Stroud goes deeper into the lore, introducing new characters and fresh elements to enrich it and with a surprise twist ending, there are clearly more adventures forthcoming for the mavericks of Lockwood & Co.